Turkey tolerates Islamic movements, to a point

A string of recent sex scandals brought increased attention to the place of Islamic movements in Turkey, while secularists took the opportunity to renew their calls for such groups to be shut down.

Yet Islamic movements and orders, known as tariqats, have deep foundations in Turkish society. In addition, such movements are present not only in Turkey, but also in Western societies. 

A particular feature in Turkey, however, is the historical cooperation between religious orders and the state. In the 17th century, the Ottoman state cooperated with the Naqshbandiyya order to combat the Shia threat from Safavid Iran.

Other examples, but there is a limit to such collaborations: the state is happy to cooperate with religious orders, yet will not hesitate to repress them when they become a political threat.

The Gülen movement is a case in point. When followers of the U.S.-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen began acting as though they were the dominant power within the bureaucracy, the state moved against them, culminating in a widespread crackdown following the 2016 failed coup, which the government blames on Gülen.

Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, outlawed Islamic orders, sending them underground. His policy had precedents, including during the reign of Sultan Mahmud II (1808-1838).

At other times the state has embraced Islamic orders, as during the Cold War when they were seen as a bulwark against communism. Similarly, the state supported many members of the Naqshbandiyya Sufi order within bureaucracy after the 1980 military coup. Many Naqshbandiyya adherents were appointed to critical posts by the military regime, which was ironically known for its ardent Kemalism.

In recent years, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Islamists have appointed members of the Işıkçılar Islamic movement to control media institutions. The founder and the chief ideologue of Işıkçılar was Hüseyin Işık, a former army officer who died in 2001. His successor, Enver Ören, was also an army officer. 

As might be expected, the Işıkçılar movement, founded and led by army officers, has always been pro-state. No matter what government is in power, the Işıkçılar are quick to toe the line.

The history of the relationship between the state and Islamic orders shows that while there have been strong Islamic orders in Turkey, no Islamic movement or order can dominate the Turkish state. Neither the state, nor society is able to tolerate it.

For example, despite the relative power of the Gülen movement before the 2016 attempted coup, independent candidates it supported in Istanbul could only secure some 150,000 votes in the 2015 general elections, out of an electorate of some 8 million.

The power of Islamic orders comes mostly from their group solidarity, which creates personal advantages for their members. But given their relatively small numbers, they have no chance against a government determined to quash them.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.